In theory, the story about a one-night comeback of a band born in the late ’70s, who struggled for over a decade until finding mild success in the mid-’90s, may have been more appealing to the young musical mass culture of decades past.
Jarvis Cocker, 51, is founder and front-man of alt-acid Britpop band Pulp. When he formed the group in 1978, at only 15, it was for reasons commonly associated with life as a budding pubescent: hard and fast social validation; a way to talk to girls—or, rather, to let blistering guitar solos do the talking for him. And it worked. It worked for him as it had for his influences not long before, and for those influenced by him not long after.
In the years sandwiched between the Beatles and Daft Punk, spanning venues from Woodstock to the Whiskey, rock-star status was an on-high existence, the manifestation of ultimate success. And maybe for a few unsung guitar heroes, who just discovered an older brother’s distortion pedal in a box that somehow didn’t get lost in the move, it still is. But let’s face it: today, Jim and Jimi are lining fewer dorm walls and more dusty closet floors, as many have dropped the bass to drop the bass, trading Fenders for Tumblr fame. Visions of headlining the cover of Rolling Stone aren’t dancing in as many heads they once were, unless your name is Aubrey Drake Graham.
Where so many rock docs of its kind harnessed that rock-star-struck obsession, setting their famous subjects apart from most everyone, from their fans to concertgoers to those watching at home, Pulp: A Film About Life, Death & Supermarkets is rife with humility, putting an emphasis on uniting the worlds of the entertainer and the entertained by celebrating our universal, timeless mortality. Jarvis and Co. aren’t standing on a pedestal in front of a one-way mirror — the film is just as much a tribute to the band as it is to the people of Pulp’s native Sheffield, home to a handful of rock notables, including the progenitor of hair bands, Def Leppard, and lo-fi alt-pop kings the Arctic Monkeys (who, as it’s been documented by scientists, are the best band in the world, objectively).
In its opening scene, Pulp finds Pulp performing their anthemic 1995 single “Common People,” of which various versions from various voices are heard throughout the documentary. As the lanky Cocker walks off stage wrapped in a sweat-soaked towel, audio from an interview with him and New Zealand director Florian Habicht (Love Story) plays. Habicht asks him, “Can you remember what you dreamt about last night?”
Jarvis—who, all limbs, performs like a Prince reincarnate possessed by the devil, gyrating frantically atop amps—changes a tire alone in a parking lot to bookend either side of the 90-minute documentary. And it’s this visual ode to the everyday that defines Pulp at its core.
The film takes place over one day in 2012: the band is at the end of their international tour and is set to play their final show (ever?) at the Motorpoint Arena. Sheffield, for all its lovable quirks, is not the sexy urban hidden treasure town Cocker’s lyrics make it out to be. Habicht remarks as much:
Impressive infrastructure does not a steamy cupboard make. Habicht and his team spend as much time cataloguing the people of Sheffield as they spend interviewing the band and recording concert footage. With each personality adding his or her color to the Sheffield mosaic, our adoration for the city deepens, enriching Pulp’s own narrative. There is Bomar, a bleached-blond young man donning luminous purple eye shadow who tells an “I hate London” story that left him robbed and face-downtrodden, literally. After he whimpered his way to Sheffield, a friend bestowed upon him the healing power of Pulp’s music. We are also introduced to three bright-eyed kids who are asked to give their on-the-spot critique of a Pulp song, which plays like a much more tactful and well-intentioned execution of a Jimmy Kimmel skit.
The fine work from DP Maria Ines Manchego adds a purifying element to a city and story marked by grimy corners. Her images of parks, ponds, bridges and city buses make all of Sheffield glisten like morning dew, turning the salt of the earth sweeter than honey while lyrics to “Common People” fade in and out.
It’s an overarching theme, this marriage of significance and normalcy. Pulp is loaded with shots and sequences containing discordant ideas, images and sounds, such as Sheffield’s worn architecture and multiple distressed window panes graffitied with sweet nothings like “I love you will you marry me” and “Don’t you want me baby?” In one fantastic scene, we’re joined by a spirited elderly woman, a recurring character, who explains her preference for Pulp: “…it makes you think, what they say. I like music that makes you think.” And in the next shot we’re taken inside Castle Market, where Cocker worked as a fish shark for a time. A recording of Pulp’s “Sheffield: Sex City” is playing.
A market butcher is shown sawing to the rhythm through an enormous hunk of cow so fresh it may well have been breathing 20 minutes before.
It’s these instances of wry humor and downplayed deviance that guide Pulp. They unite the people of the town and bind them with their idols meaningfully—not through some “Stars, They’re Just Like Us!” tabloid filler. Pulp’s mark is seen throughout all of Sheffield, from local dance troupes, to the Sheffield Harmony chorus, to inside the café of a senior center. So too is the band marked by Sheffield’s influence.
Pulp: A Film About Life, Death & Supermarkets is a whimsical jaunt in step with the often saddening passage of time. It’s the miraculous in the mundane, and the celebration of a united kingdom of common people.
Director: Florian Habicht
Writer: Florian Habicht, Jarvis Cocker, Peter O’Donoghue
Starring: Jarvis Cocker, Candida Doyle, Nick Banks, Steve Mackey, Richard Hawley, Mark Webber
Starring: Nov. 21, 2014